Date of Award

5-2014

Level of Access

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

Advisor

Shannon McCoy

Second Committee Member

Jordan LaBouff

Third Committee Member

Larry Smith

Abstract

Economic inequality between rich and poor in the United States is now at an all- time high. The increasing economic inequality in the United States may have deleterious effects for social interactions across the so-called “class divide.” Individuals from different socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds may find cross-class interactions stressful or intimidating, particularly when they are from a lower-status group.

Across two studies, I examine the impact of cross-class social interactions on cognitive performance and physiological reactivity. In the first study, individuals from lower-SES backgrounds participate in a social interaction with an individual from either a higher or lower-SES background, or in an interaction where SES background is not made salient. In study 2, individuals from both lower and higher-SES backgrounds participate in these same social interactions. In both studies, performance on a cognitive task and mean arterial pressure (MAP) reactivity were measured. Results indicate that individuals from lower-SES backgrounds interacting with a higher-status partner, in both Study 1 and Study 2, were significantly more likely to disengage from a verbal performance task and to have higher MAP reactivity after the performance task.

In an additional study, high school students from lower-SES backgrounds (whose parents do not have a four-year college degree) participating in the Upward Bound program were asked about stigma consciousness, achievement motivation, perceived positive role models, “shift-and-persist" strategies, self-esteem, etc. Results indicate that individuals higher in stigma consciousness reported less academic motivation and lower self-esteem.

Fortunately, there may be a number of variables that could increase resilience for these individuals. Further analysis revealed that the negative relationship between stigma consciousness and achievement motivation and the negative relationship between stigma consciousness and self-esteem were both significantly mediated by the perception of positive role models and “shift-and-persist" strategies, which have been found in previous research to have important buffering health effects for individuals from lower-SES backgrounds.

These studies show the importance of one’s SES background and may be useful in improving academic and health outcomes of individuals from lower-SES backgrounds. Recognizing the influence of SES background may be an important first step in improving communication across the class divide.

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